France Eases Stem Cell Research Ban, but Fight is Not Over

The entrance to the French Senate in the Palais du Luxembourg. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Stephan Bøgh-Andersen

The entrance to the French Senate in the Palais du Luxembourg. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Stephan Bøgh-Andersen

The French National Assembly passed a bill that will expand embryonic stem cell research in France, by a comfortable margin, but experts say that the fight over stem cells is far from over.

The proposed law had already been adopted by the Senate, the upper house of France’s Parliament. Despite vociferous opposition from some, it passed the National Assembly by a comfortable margin.

Before this week’s vote, embryonic stem cell research in France had effectively been illegal, with a few exceptions. But now the gates have been opened to new, previously unexplored areas of science.

Under the new law, embryonic stem cell research is permitted, provided that a laboratory wishing to perform the research meets four conditions.

The first three conditions that researchers must meet are relatively clear. First, “the scientific relevance of the research must be established.” Secondly, the research must have “an ultimate medical purpose.” Thirdly, the research in question must be demonstrably impossible without the use of embryonic stem cells.

The fourth requirement, however, is not as cut and dried. The law simply states that researchers must “respect ethical principles regarding research on embryos and embryonic stem cells.”

Just what those principles may be, however, have been left for future legal battles, which doubtless will come, to determine.

The law does make it clear that researchers cannot fertilize human embryos simply for research purposes. This means that the primary source for fertilized embryos will continue to be that eternal flame of ideological vitriol: abortion.

Many scientists have long argued that embryonic stem cell research promises medical breakthroughs that are nothing short of miraculous. The cells in question are harvested from a fertilized human embryo after five or six days of development. Because of the donor embryo’s early stage of development, these cells are remarkably versatile, making them potentially ideal treatments for conditions that are rooted in dysfunctions of a single type of cell, such as Parkinson’s or nerve damage.

But because harvesting embryonic stem cells involves the destruction of a fertilized human embryo, anti-abortion activists, such as conservative French Catholics, have fought to block funding to embryonic stem cell researchers or to ban the practice outright.

Alpes-Maritimes MP Jean Leonetti, vice-president of the Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP), harshly criticized the bill. In a caustic public statement, he said that the majority had “botched” the parliamentary process by failing to consult the French National Advisory Council on Ethics (CCNE) before voting.

Leonetti predicted that stem cell research would lead to nothing more than “dashed hopes,” and said that the process would “violate the dignity of the person.”

Leonetti also promised that he, along with others in the UMP, would support an appeal to the Constitutional Council.

On the other side of the debate, Green lawmaker Véronique Massonnau of Vienne ridiculed accusations of “eugenics,” saying that the new law would lead French biomedical laboratories to an age of “research excellence.”

In 2012, doctors at the University of California at Los Angeles reported that they had partially cured two legally blind women with an experimental retinal stem cell treatment.

Other scientists were quick to caution the media that two cases could not offer decisive proof on the efficacy of stem cell therapy. The procedure did not meet the normal criteria for a controlled experiment: there had been no control group, and the number of subjects created too small a test field.

Nonetheless, the report undeniably rejuvenated a field that has often struggled because of vigorous opposition and chronic underfunding.

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  1. […] French National Assembly passed a bill that will expand embryonic stem cell research in France, but experts say that the fight over stem cells is far from over. Under the new law, embryonic stem […]

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